Article: From the Collections--Inventing for Business in Washington, D.C. :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Alison Oswald, Lemelson Center Archivist
Pamphlet for loose-leaf binders for the AutoLock Binder Company, undated. From the Alexander Binder Company Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

In 1879, Alexander Graham Bell moved to the nation's capital, a burgeoning city undergoing rapid modernization after the Civil War. Here, Bell created his Volta Laboratory and began experiments on sound-recording devices. Other inventors, including Samuel Langley, Emile Berliner, and Herman Hollerith, were also drawn to government and scientific resources in D.C., where they exchanged ideas with scientists, politicians, writers, and artists in the city's many private salons, including one at Bell's home. The federal government's support of scientific research and economic development resulted in a "creative class" that formed a network of invention and discovery. But some lesser-known inventors were also toiling away in the nation's capital, operating thriving businesses--one of these was Clinton B. Alexander (1873-1966).

A mining engineer by training, Alexander moved to Washington from Pennsylvania around 1900. From 1915 to 1965, Alexander patented and sold various items for businesses and record keeping, including a plumb adjuster, paper punch, tape splice, and loose-leaf binder. Business filing systems of the 19th and 20th centuries revolutionized the way firms conducted their daily activities and influenced the way documentation was created, stored, and organized. The development of letter cabinets, document file boxes, lateral files, and sectional filing cabinets has shaped the modern office, and Alexander's small business made a contribution.

Advertisement for the Crescent Portfolio. From the Alexander Binder Company Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

The loose-leaf binder (U.S. Patents 1,165,305, 1915 and 1,434,579, 1922) was Alexander's most successful invention improvement. The binders were of "rugged structure" with few parts and Alexander noted that they were "mechanically efficient devices" for holding paper and bills. The binders were sold under the name Autoset Company and Autolock Company. The Autoset Company/Autolock Company and the Alexander Instrument Company formed part of the Alexander Binder Company, located at 467 C Street NW in Washington, D.C. It was a small family business for its entire existence--both Clinton Alexander's wife (Maria Dixon Alexander) and son (William B. Alexander) participated in the firm. Alexander also sold other inventions through the Alexander Instrument Company.

The Alexander Binder collection at the Museum consists of records and business materials created between the 1910s and 1965. Most of the collection deals with the binders sold under the Autoset/Autolock company names. Business and sales information and materials from competitor companies are also included. The vast majority of this collection is textual material, especially business ephemera used to improve the business, or sales records between Alexander and his suppliers and customers. There are also material samples, such as grommets, extenders, fabric samples, printing plates, and sample binders from both the Autoset Company and its competitors.

What motivated this engineer-turned-office supply businessman is unknown. Alexander's inventive contributions to the office supply world were, no doubt, used by many D.C. offices. Today we continue to rely on filing cabinets and binders, but we generate staggering amounts of documentation in both the paper and digital world. We're able to store many of our digital documents, images, and audio and video files on devices the size of our thumbs. The rise of new technologies allows us to increase storage capacity and retrieve, migrate, and share information easily. But it just doesn't have the same feel as a binder in your hands.

To learn more about the collection, see http://americanhistory.si.edu/archives/AC1100.htm

From Prototype, February 2010

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